In the beginning, God created men and women equally in his image, and Jesus drove home this truth through his words and actions. The Gospels are filled with stories of women who played vital roles in Jesus’ mission, a pattern that continued in the book of Acts and beyond.

Women, including many from socially prominent backgrounds, flocked to Christianity in droves, to the point that they made up about two-thirds of the church in its first few centuries. This article, the second of two, examines some of their stories.

The first article focused on women in the New Testament and the post-apostolic era. This second article moves beyond those first two centuries and looks at the lives of several prominent women who impacted the church in the centuries that followed.

Faltonia Betitia Proba (c.315-c.370)

Proba was born around the end of the last great persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian and lived most of her life during the reign of Constantine, who legalized Christianity within the Empire. She came from one of the most powerful aristocratic families; her grandfather, father and son were all Roman consuls, and her husband was a prefect. Born a pagan, she became a Christian as an adult and persuaded her husband and sons to convert as well. From a sociological standpoint, this was by far the most common way the Christian faith spread during its first few centuries.

Although Christianity had become legal, it was still far from being universally embraced. Educated pagans dismissed it as a faith for the unlearned and viewed the Scriptures as intellectually and artistically inferior to the classic Greco-Roman poets. To help bridge this gap, Proba composed a poem in the form of a cento, a popular genre that took lines from classic works and rearranged them to tell a new story (sampling in modern music might be an appropriate analogy). Proba’s cento combined excerpts from Virgil’s epic Aeneid to tell the story of Creation and the life of Jesus in elegant Latin hexameter verse.

Such a practice may strike us as strange, or even plagiaristic, but it was an accepted form of storytelling in Late Antiquity. When Paul the Apostle addressed the pagan philosophers at Athens, he took quotes that were originally about Zeus and applied them to God. His audience, familiar with the sources, had no problem with this. Three centuries later, Proba used a similar strategy to reach the learned readers of her day. Not only is her cento the earliest surviving poetry by a Christian woman, but she is likely the first female author whose work was published after printing was invented, 1,000 years after she wrote it.

Macrina the Younger (c.327-379)

In contrast to Proba, Macrina’s family had been Christian for generations and had suffered under the persecutions of Diocletian. They were also a wealthy family with lands across what is now Turkey. Macrina was born in Cappadocia (central Turkey) but after her father died, the family moved north to their estate in Pontus, on the south coast of the Black Sea. Her mother’s emotional and spiritual exhaustion left Macrina, the eldest of 10 siblings, the functional head of the family.

Under Macrina’s leadership, the household and estate became a religious community dedicated to study, prayer, caring for the poor, rescuing orphaned children, and composing and singing hymns. Together with her mother, Macrina freed their household slaves and made them equal members of their community. As the family’s spiritual leader, Macrina modelled and taught the life of faith to her siblings and essentially raised her youngest brother, Peter, to whom she became “father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice.”

Two of her other brothers, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, along with their friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, became famous for defending the doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ, and came to be known as the Cappadocian Fathers. However, Macrina was their mentor who shaped and guided them by precept and example. When Basil was too full of himself, she brought him back down to earth. When Gregory gave in to self-pity, she told him to get over himself and look to Christ. Macrina has been rightly described as the Fourth Cappadocian, but she might just as well be called the Best Big Sister Ever.

Monica of Thagaste (c.331-387)

If Macrina was the model of elder sisterhood in early Christianity, then her near contemporary, Monica, may well be its quintessential mother. Monica was born into a Christian family in Thagaste, North Africa (present-day Algeria) but was married off to a pagan named Patricius. Her husband was abusive, with a wandering eye and a violent temper. Since women at the time had no legal recourse or option to leave, Monica used patience and tact to stay safe and lead her husband to faith before his death. Among the couple’s children was a son named Augustine, who would become the most influential figure in church history between the New Testament and the Protestant Reformation.

Being Augustine’s mom was no picnic. The young man’s soaring intellect made it clear to everyone – including himself – that he was destined for greater things than life in a provincial town. He moved first to Carthage in present-day Tunisia, and then to Rome and to Milan to further his education and career, leaving his Christian upbringing far behind. Monica, however, never stopped praying for her son with tears, following him in his travels and shepherding him along a rocky path back to the Christian faith.

Monica’s efforts were finally rewarded when Augustine converted to Christianity at the age of 32. Mother and son then spent a peaceful time at a villa near Milan with a group of Augustine’s Christian friends. Monica was a combination den mother and philosophical foil to the young men, caring for their needs while also engaging in their dialogues and sharpening their thinking. She died shortly after her son was baptized, overjoyed that God had let her see him come to faith. In his Confessions, Augustine credited his mother as God’s primary instrument in his conversion and spiritual formation.

Paula of Rome (347-404)

Similar to Monica and Macrina, Paula was a strong, intelligent woman who stood behind the work of one of the most influential figures in church history. She was part of a community of educated aristocratic widows in Rome dedicated to the study of Scripture, healing the sick and caring for the poor. They were connected to the prominent theologian and historian Saint Jerome, who held them in such high regard that he would refer inquirers to them for answers to theological or practical questions.

When Jerome relocated to Bethlehem, he invited the women to join him there. Most of them chose to continue their work in Rome, but Paula and her daughter, Eustochium, accepted his invitation. In Bethlehem, they built a complex of monasteries and formed a new community of women dedicated to education and charitable work. Besides being wealthy, Paula was a brilliant scholar whose facility in Greek and Hebrew surpassed Jerome’s, by his admission. She convinced him of the need for a Latin translation of the Scriptures and acquired the rare, expensive manuscripts needed for the project.

Together with her daughter, Paula edited Jerome’s work and made copies for publication. To those who criticized the women’s involvement, Jerome retorted, “These people do not know that while Barak trembled, Deborah saved Israel; that Esther delivered from supreme peril the children of God . . . Is it not to women that our Lord appeared after His resurrection? Yes, and the men could then blush for not having sought what women had found.” The translation they produced, known as the Vulgate, remained the predominant version of the Scriptures for over 1,000 years.

Egeria (fl. late 4th century)

Little is known for certain about Egeria’s life, beyond the fact that she lived in the late 4th (and perhaps into the early 5th) century. She was from Spain or possibly Gaul (modern France), a wealthy, educated woman with the means and opportunity to travel widely across the Roman Mediterranean world. Egeria is likely the first Christian woman from Spain known to history by name, although that name is also recorded as Etheria, Echeria and Eiheria in various sources. The only primary information about her comes from a document she wrote, describing her three-year journey through the Holy Land.

Known as the Itinerarium Egeriae, or Travels of Egeria, the work is a combination travelogue, devotional, theological reflection and socio-political survey. Egeria’s goal was to visit all the lands mentioned in the Scriptures, from Egypt to Palestine, Mesopotamia, Syria and back to Anatolia (modern Turkey) which had become the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. To her frustration, she was unable to visit Persia due to strained relations between Rome and the Sassanid Persians. Her three-year pilgrimage likely occurred between 381 and 384, although 393 to 396 or sometime between 404 and 417 are also possible dates.

Egeria’s innovative work is the earliest known example of a literary genre that was popular for centuries, well into the medieval era. Pilgrims to the Holy Land would record their impressions of what they saw, along with their spiritual reflections on their experiences. For modern Christian scholars, Egeria’s Travels offers some of the earliest recorded descriptions of liturgy and organization in the ancient church, as well as details about locations and everyday life in the late Roman world. Through the centuries and down to the present, countless believers have followed in her footsteps to explore the Holy Land and to experience the timeless stories of Scripture in its fresh contextual light.

Kassia of Constantinople (c.810-c.865)

Kassia, also known as Kassiani, was born into a wealthy family in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and received a first-class education in philosophy, Greek literature and Christian theology. Beautiful as well as intelligent, she was selected for a “bride show” as a potential wife for the newly crowned Byzantine Emperor Theophilos. In one of history’s worst opening lines, the young man told Kassia, “Through a woman came the worst things,” referring to the sin of Eve. With a sharp wordplay in Greek, Kassia retorted, “And through a woman came the best things,” alluding to Mary giving birth to Jesus. His fragile ego wounded, Theophilos rejected Kassia in favour of another woman named Theodora.

Far from being perturbed by this turn of events, Kassia dedicated herself to a religious life, founding a monastery in Constantinople that she served as abbess until near the end of her life. She had further conflicts with Theophilos about a theological dispute, for which the emperor had her scourged with a lash. Despite this, Kassia remained an outspoken defender of the orthodox faith. “I hate silence when it is time to speak,” she pointed out, and after Theophilos died, she was on better terms with the new emperor and his court.

In addition to being the spiritual leader for her community of women, Kassia became a successful composer, poet and hymnographer. She wrote around 50 hymns and other poems on sacred and secular subjects, as well as hundreds of short, pithy epigrams like the one quoted above. Kassia is the earliest female composer who signed her name to her work and whose scores survive and can be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. About two dozen of her hymns are still used in Greek Orthodox liturgy. The best known of these is her Hymn for Holy Wednesday, also called the Troparion of Kassiani, a stunning metaphorical story of redemption through the eyes of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus.

This is the second of two articles exploring the stories of women who made significant contributions to church history during its first several centuries. The first article focused on women in the New Testament and the post-apostolic era and is available here.

Sources and further reading

Susannah Black Roberts, “Monica of Thagaste, mother of Augustine,” Plough Quarterly, August 27, 2023.

Simonetta Carr, “Macrina the Younger: The fourth Cappadocian,” Place for Truth, March 29, 2018.

Simonetta Carr, “Kassia: A bold and sensitive Byzantine poet,” Place for Truth, May 12, 2020.

Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries, Baker Academic, 2017.

Karen Engle, “20 Christian women who shaped church history,” Logos, March 16, 2023.

Nancy A. Hardesty, “Paula: A portrait of 4th century piety,” Christian History, Volume 7 Number 1, Issue 17, 1988.

Michael J. Kruger, “How Early Christianity was mocked for welcoming women,” Canon Fodder, July 13, 2020.

Joshua J. Mark, “Ten should-be famous women of Early Christianity,” World History Encyclopedia, March 28, 2023.

Roger Rees, “Faltonia Betitia Proba,” St. Andrews Classics, March 9, 2016.

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, HarperOne, 1997.

VocaMe, “Kassia: Byzantine hymns of the first female composer of the Occident,” YouTube, June 2, 2013.

Text treasures: The pilgrimage of Egeria,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume 50 Number 1, Spring 2024.

Egeria: Pilgrim, traveller and writer of the IV century,” Fundación Jacobea, July 21, 2023.

Kassia and the fallen woman of Holy Week,” Sisters in Song, March 30, 2015.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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